CAPSULE: WHITE GOD (2014)

 Fehér isten

DIRECTED BY: Kornél Mundruczó

FEATURING: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér

PLOT: A young girl is separated from her beloved mutt after her father refuses to pay a new tax on mixed breeds; the dog is thrown into the streets of Budapest and becomes the leader of a wild pack that terrorizes the city.

Still from White God (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. It’s only the bookend opening and closing scenes that really approach the lunatic.

COMMENTS: White God begins with a scene of a young girl pedaling her bicycle through the streets of Budapest, which is depopulated as though in a dream; suddenly, a pack of two-hundred fifty dogs appears from around a corner, loping behind her in slow motion. It’s a startling, half-surreal image, but the movie takes some time to get back to anything approaching its power. Post-credits, we flash back to the beginning of the story to get our narrative bearings: Lili, a young musician just embarking on womanhood, and her mutt Hagen are inseparable pals, but trouble arises when the girl has to spend the summer with her dog-hating father in his Budapest apartment. Hagen is a hassle, and to make things worse the city has enacted a blatantly allegorical tax on half-breed dogs. After Hagen makes a nuisance of himself, the father kicks the cur to the curb in a fit of pique.

So far the film has been a drama, but with this development it begins shifting genres. For a while as we follow Hagen’s adventures in the alone in the big city, meeting other strays and evading dogcatchers, it seems like this will be a live action lost pet family flick a la Benji. Things turn far darker and distinctly un-Disney, however, as Hagen finds his instinctual trust in the beneficence of humans is unwarranted. The scenes of animal cruelty that follow, while clearly simulated and intended as social criticism, will make this film all but unwatchable for some animal lovers. Interspersed with Hagen’s journeys are the parallel adventures of Lili, who continues to search for her beloved pet but also starts to take an interest in boys. Things take a stranger turn when Hagen escapes captivity and organizes a pack of feral strays into a force for vengeance against his human oppressors; the movie becomes a canine version of The Birds, with dogs running through the streets, slamming themselves into car windows as women scream, trapped in their vehicles.

To its credit, White God handles these multiple shifts in tone and genre well, and wears its absurd premise lightly. And yet, the movie is not entirely successful, mainly because its human characters aren’t as interesting or impressive as its animals. Although the core story of a girl’s love for her dog is inherently moving, the scenes of Lili alone are not warranted as anything other than a break from the tension of poor Hagen’s abuse at human hands. White God spends too much time with its people; but what you will remember about it is the hundreds of dogs rampaging through the streets of Budapest, a feat of practical animal choreography that has never been attempted on this scale before. It’s no wonder that the DVD’s extra features treat chief animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller with almost as much reverence as director Mundruczó; if there were an Academy Award for best animal stunts, White God would be a shoo-in.

The title “White God” is somewhat mysterious. It evokes ‘s 1982 flop White Dog, a moral allegory about the deprogramming of an albino German Shepherd trained by white supremacists to attack blacks. Just as the letters in the two title nouns are transposed, the plot arc here is the mirror image of Fuller’s film: God‘s canine progresses from domesticated to vicious. The title also refers to the way dogs look at humans as godlike beings, and, furthermore, to the old European ideal of “whiteness” as representing genetic purity and perfection. I have no idea whether these meanings come across in the Hungarian title “Fehér isten,” or whether that title includes its own untranslated puns or wordplay, although this information is as unnecessary to appreciating the film as is understanding the specific Hungarian political references Mundruczó may be making here.

White God won the “Un Certain Regard” prize (given to “original and different” movies) at Cannes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

White God is a strange beast. Director Kornel Mundruczo has created a beautiful and bizarre film that veers between gritty realism and haunting fantasy…”–Lucy Barrick, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad,” who called it “not the strangest film ever, but definitely something to take a look at.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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